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  • A Bibliographical and Biographical Note: Henry James’s Markings in Zola’s La Débâcle
  • Adeline R. Tintner

Of the thirty-six volumes by Emile Zola in Henry James’s library, bound in dark green half calf with gilt decorations on the spine, there is only one that has markings by James. They occur in La Débâcle (1892). 1 James has written, in pencil in his characteristic handwriting, “178” and under that “478” on the back pasteboard of this volume. On each of the indicated pages, there are pencil markings. On page 178, there is a vertical line indicating two printed lines of the text. On page 478, there are two crosses on the left margin indicating the beginning of the passage and the end of the passage. The two markings are interesting to Jamesians because of his appreciation of the main theme of the novel, the defeat of the French army in the Franco-Prussian War at Sedan. It was this particular novel which James, in his 1903 article on Zola, pays the most attention to in terms of his feelings about Zola as a novelist. He ends his essay with a long paragraph in praise of La Débâcle, although the rest of the essay is concerned with certain failings on the part of Zola.

James writes about the circumstances in which he read the novel.

I recall the effect it then produced on me as a really luxurious act of submission. It was early in the summer; I was in an old Italian town; the heat was oppressive, and one could but recline, in the lightest garments, in a great dim room and give one’s self up. . . . I remember that in the glow of my admiration there was not a reserve I had ever made that I was not ready to take back. As an application of the author’s system and his supreme faculty, as a triumph of what these things could do for him, how could such a performance be surpassed? [End Page 204] The long, complex, horrific, pathetic battle, embraced, mastered, with every crash of its squadrons, every pulse of its thunder and blood resolved for us, by reflection, by communication from two of the humblest and obscurest of the military units, into immediate vision and contact, into deep human thrills of terror and pity—this bristling centre of the book was such a piece of “doing”. . . as could only shut our mouths.

( NN 63–64)

James spent the early summer in Siena visiting the Bourgets for a month after his arrival on June 5, 1892 (Edel, Middle 321) during which time he probably read La Débâcle.

What he did not mention in this concluding passage of his essay on Zola is that the great subject of this novel set within the devastating picture of the defeat of the French was the growing love between two young men, one, Jean Macquart, a peasant, the corporal of the 106th squadron of the French army, the other, Maurice Levasseur, a young lawyer, well-educated, who had enlisted. But he makes up for the neglect in public print by marking privately the passage in which Zola expresses the emotional depths of that relationship.

The two men begin by resenting each other: Maurice resents the fact that the man who gives him orders is someone of peasant origin, and Jean resents Maurice’s spoiled and arrogant personality. However, their growing mutual affection and increasing interdependence, their saving of each other’s lives until the unfortunate accident at the end, is something that apparently struck James so forcibly that he was moved to indicate a passage that particularly touched him.

The first marking is early in the book when starvation affects not only the soldiers but their horses, so essential at that time for the engagement of men in battle. Jean Macquart sees an African chasseur whose horse is starved. The following two lines have been marked by a vertical line in pencil. “Les grosses dents faisent un bruit de râpe, contre le bois, tandis que le chasseur d’Afrique pleurait” (178). “The horse’s large teeth were making the sound...

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pp. 204-207
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